An immense crowd of courageous swimmers congregated at Coney Island to welcome the new year with a thrilling plunge into the icy North Atlantic Ocean. This yearly ritual is the 121st instance of the widely celebrated polar bear plunge. The Brooklyn shoreline was a sight to behold, with a scattering of swimmers donning Speedos alongside spectators swaddled in heavy winter jackets. The event, a cherished tradition hosted by the Coney Island Polar Bear Club since the early 1900s, experienced what organizers optimistically called ‘unprecedented turnout’.
Despite the bone-chilling water, the heat of the day swung to an unusually high mid-40s, much to the relief of everyone present. An event official on gate duty noted that the crowd was ‘conclusively larger’ than the 4,000 pre-registered participants. Each participant had their unique approach to getting mentally prepared for the frosty plunge, like Robert, 49, who appeared to shrug off the cold with his shorts and lack of jacket.
The annual New Year’s Day polar bear plunge, now a stalwart tradition over a century old, buzzed with thrill and anticipation. An incredible number of over 6,000 people, according to organizers, contributed to making this year’s event a ‘record-breaking’ celebration. A lifelong local, Shannon Douglas, was filled with excitement to finally participate in the event that had long held a spot on her ‘bucket list’.
‘Every new year, I made promises to myself that I would finally participate, but somehow, I never got around to it. This year was different; I was determined not to let the opportunity pass. Ticking off my bucket list one by one, starting right here,’ beamed the cheerful participant. Well before the plunge event started, there were already snaking queues of eager participants lining up along Stillwell Ave and around the corner.
Despite the cold, the energy was infectious and anticipation hung in the air. Exactly at the stroke of 11 a.m., the first group of intrepid swimmers began their march to the beach, while the line behind them showed no sign of dwindling. However, the leggy lines deterred some from their ambitions to plunge on this big day, instead they chose to cheer from the sidelines and absorb the festive atmosphere.
A varied costume party made its way to the beach. Some braved it out donned in skimpy swimwear, while others opted for the safety of cozy winter layers. ‘The waiting line is simply too extensive. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest,’ said Hermen, a visitor from New Jersey who had planned to brave the freezing waters.
He had traveled alone from New Jersey to experience the iconic plunge, only to be deterred by the long lines. But many persevered and were rewarded with the exhilarating experience. For them, the plunge was absolutely worth the wait due to the accommodating weather and unusually warm water.
‘If this is your first time here, this was the ultimate year to plunge in – the cold was manageable,’ said Derrick, 49, a New Yorker who performed his inaugural plunge. He felt motivated by his friends’ exhilarating plunge stories shared on social media. He said, ‘I have friends from tropical countries who annually participate in this plunge and share their stories online, so what’s my excuse?’
Rebecca, on her part, had fond childhood memories of her dad accompanying her to the annual frosty dive at Coney Island. This year, in a heart-warming act of generational legacy, she took a dip in the freezing ocean waters with her own children, aged 10 and 7. It was a shining moment for her to uphold the family tradition with her own offspring.
‘I am gleefully proud to carry on and share this tradition with my own little ones,’ she expressed, labeling their plunge as nothing short of ‘effortless’. She observed that the water felt significantly warmer than prior years. ‘Don’t be fooled by the cold air, the water is not that bad,’ she cautioned.
The brave plunger parents and kids were enthusiastically greeted with applause, smiles, and cheers from the onlooking crowd as they hurried back to the shore to dry off and warm up with their robes and jackets. To commemorate their accomplishment, each plunger was honored with a ‘I did it’ certificate, much to their delight.
‘It wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be!’ was the common sentiment expressed by a man as he emerged from the water. With a broad grin, he held his certificate up high for all to see. The hundreds of smiles and people made New Year’s Day at Coney Island one unforgettable experience, a celebration of boldness, tradition, and community spirit.